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Raiders help high school teams become pros for a day

Updated April 25, 2021 - 8:03 pm

It was 3:45 p.m. Saturday, and there was a commotion in the tunnel at the southwest end of Allegiant Stadium. The Rancho High football team was whooping it up in advance of running onto the field for a two-hour practice in the Raiders’ magnificent year-old stadium.

The Rams were one of nine local high school squads selected by the Clark County School District to participate in the jamboree, as the Raiders called this latest and most grandiose example of its ongoing commitment to the local community. Perhaps getting to block and tackle in an NFL stadium wouldn’t make up for having the 2020 season eliminated by COVID, but you wouldn’t have known it from the boisterous activity in the tunnel.

It sounded like the Rancho sideline before the annual “Bone Game” against longtime rival Las Vegas High.

When it was time for the Rancho kids, clad in green and white, to run onto the field turf while taking selfies with Al Davis’ memorial torch serving as a backdrop, the Basic Wolves, clad in blue and white, still were occupying part of it.

The Basic players were lingering around midfield. A few clicked off one last selfie. Others took a long gaze around the domed football palace, perhaps in an attempt to commit every detail to memory for the day they tell their children about having practiced in it.

It sort of recalled the lyric from Don McLean’s “American Pie,” in which the players tried to take the field, but the marching band refused to yield. Only it was another team that was refusing to yield.

Change in surroundings

This was the second time I had watched Rancho practice football. The first was years ago, when the Rams were relegated to blocking and tackling in a public park when the football field at their then-new high school didn’t get finished in time.

Then as on Saturday, the players brought personal belongings in equipment bags that lay scattered in a haphazard fashion near the practice field. Only this time there was no reason for a student manager to stand vigil so the men sleeping under the evergreens at Hartke Park didn’t rifle through them.

That would never happen at Bishop Gorman.

It has been decades since the football team at Rancho achieved Gorman-like success. The Rams won three consecutive state championships during the 1960s and remained competitive through the 1980s. Rancho won its last state title in 1988 around the time Mike Pritchard was wrapping up his Rams career before being named MVP of Colorado’s national championship team and embarking on a long NFL career.

But then came urban sprawl and rezoning, and there went Rancho’s success. The Rams have won only 13 games while losing 81 since 2010, proving that high school teams that spend three seasons practicing in a city park do not often achieve success.

They were back on the road again in 2019 when the home field they had been waiting for 15 years ago was deemed unsuitable to play on. This time they practiced on the baseball field.

It was the Raiders who came to their rescue.

Under aegis of the NFL Foundation’s Grassroots Program, the Raiders wrote a $250,000 check for a new synthetic field at Rancho. More recently, after hosting 70 local high school coaches for a virtual coaching clinic, Raiders coach Jon Gruden and the Raiders Foundation matched $25,000 donations to total $50,000 that will go to schools such as Rancho to assist in purchasing equipment.

Pros for a day

The new turf, equipment money and coaching clinics were much appreciated. But you could tell from Rancho coach Leon Evans’ smile that getting to practice and scrimmage in an NFL stadium was an even bigger thrill than scoring the winning touchdown in the Bone Game.

“This is amazing for a young kid to be able to come play in a pro stadium like this,” said Evans, who played on Rancho’s last state title team. “So glad the Raiders gave us that opportunity. This is one of the best experiences these kids will ever have as a football player. Many of them won’t go on to play college football, so this is the closest thing they’ll have to playing in a big-time stadium.”

Evans said when the Rams learned they were selected to join Foothill, Centennial, Liberty, Del Sol, Sierra Vista, Arbor View, Basic and Chaparral in the jamboree, practice intensity went through the roof.

“We were able to dangle that carrot — if we come work hard, we’re going to come play in the Raiders’ stadium,” he said.

Another smile, this one on the face of Rams defensive back Saied Koroma as he came off the field, suggested this was the one practice that ended way too soon.

“This was the first time I ever set foot in an NFL stadium, so it’s like a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” he said as Evans assembled a few other Rams to chat about the grins they were sporting.

But they never got the chance. It was 6 p.m., and the Chaparral Cowboys had been waiting in the tunnel, whooping it up, since 5:30.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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